©1995 By Bob Litton; ©2012 By Bob Litton
Old Mildred Heatherington, dressed in a royal blue bathrobe and pearl grey slippers, stood on the cobblestone walk behind her ranch house, grabbed handfuls of cracked corn out of the wickerwork plate she hugged against her belly, and tossed them out onto the scraggly lawn of bermuda and buffalo grass. A wild goose and a white domestic duck stood together ten feet away, now watching her, now dipping down to peck at the corn, now preening their wing and breast feathers nonchalantly. Their stillness, their near indifference, gave Mildred an opportunity to feel irritated and thus justified in speaking to dumb animals.
“What’s wrong with you stupid birds, anyhow? Can’t you show more gratitude? You seem to think you planted this corn and watered it and harvested it. Do you believe this stuff is your birthright? Have I spoiled you, heh? Answer that! Have I spoiled you?”
She smiled, pleased with her mock-angry homily, a sermon she heard only in her head, since she hadn’t put on her hearing aid yet this morning. Her hair—mousey grey, only long enough to indicate her femininity, uncombed—fluttered wispily over her temples in the light early morning breeze. At eighty years, she was short, slightly stooped and slow of movement, but all her limbs worked well enough for what she needed to do. Her eyelids slanted away from the center of her forehead over grey eyes that were still quick to evaluate. Many a horse had she bought and sold, many a calf.
As Mildred dumped the residue of corn out of the plate, a stray cowdog—part blue heeler and part German shepherd—appeared out of the sagebrush, catsclaw and cacti that bordered her chainlink fence. He had thick grey fur with some brown and black mixed in; and a cravat of white circled his throat, widening in front where it pointed down toward his chest. He looked well-fed, but his tongue dangled over his lip and then licked in the manner of dogs who want to announce they are hungry.
“What? You again? Three days in a row you’ve crept out of that pasture to bum table leavin’s offa me. Who are your owners anyway? I’ve asked all around and nobody wants to claim you. What’s your name? Any dog as old as you are is bound to have a name! All I can call you is ‘Dog’. Oh well. And so, let me go see what’s left of my supper.”
She paused a few moments, gazing over the heads of the fowls and the dog, over the empty horse stall, over the mesquite trees, at what was left of the West Texas sunrise. There had been a light rain during the night and the clouds had moved eastwards. They had been bloody red only twenty minutes earlier; now they were mostly slightly coral with some purple shades down near the horizon where they were thickest. Closer to the middle sky, they became ever pinker until the few small wisps that trailed from the west had their regular cotton white. The sun was nearly above the horizon now, erasing the painting it had created. Mildred, a Sunday artist herself, sighed at the evidence of Nature’s prodigality. She had seen such sunrises all her life, for her father had moved his family here when she was still sleeping in a bassinet, but they continued to take her breath away.
Turning finally toward the door of her screened-in porch, she opened it slowly only a few inches and peered in. “Okay, you two, get back in there. It’s not time for you to come out yet.” She was addressing two male Siamese cats, brothers and alike in their tan-and-black coloring, but very different in attitude. One was large, soft, and lazy, and always ready to rub his side against Mildred’s leg. The other was slightly smaller and much leaner; he was also more independent, more tiger-like, usually causing the quarrel whenever there was one between them.
Squeezing herself through the barely open door, Mildred stepped over her cats and ambled into the kitchen. On the sink counter her little stack of unwashed dishes lay in a jumble. Among them, she managed to gather together a couple of pork chop bones, a sauce spoon full of cream corn and a half-eaten biscuit. She also scraped some smears of apple sauce off the plate into an old skillet she had converted into a dog’s food dish.
“Get off that table!” Mildred yelled at the leaner of the two cats as she passed back through the screened-in porch where she spent nearly all her waking time. The cat leaped to the floor, its tail causing the beige tassels on the table lamp shade to ripple and its claws pulling some pages of the newspaper down with it.
Shaking her head with the irritation that gave a meaning to her existence, Mildred carried the skillet out into the yard, partly shaded now by the two large mulberry trees that grew near its center. The goose and the duck were waddling about, dipping their beaks regularly into the sparse grass to pick up bits of cracked corn.
The dog was standing at the gate that opened into Mildred’s carport; he knew where one was supposed to enter. His tail wagged and his forepaws pulled at the fence links when he saw Mildred approaching with the skillet. Mildred opened the gate, set the pan down on the concrete drive, and then stepped back into her yard, securing the gate. “You’ll have to stay out there,” she said to the dog. “I can’t have you scaring my birds.”
As Mildred started walking back to her white frame house, she noticed a young man in faded blue denims and a brown-and-red plaid shirt standing at the corner of her front fence. He held a small olive-colored knapsack over his right shoulder and rested his left hand on a fence post. His lips were moving when Mildred’s gaze met his, but she couldn’t hear anything. She frowned briefly not only because she couldn’t hear, but also because he was a stranger who had startled her, if only a little, and because he had caught her in a candid moment, had invaded her private world.
She waved at him to shush-up and pointed at her right ear: “Wait! Let me go fetch my ears.”
The young man looked quizzically at her a moment and then nodded his head, smiling, as he understood her reference to a hearing aid. She motioned to him to come into her yard and sit on a white wrought iron patio chair, then she went back into the house. When she returned, adjusting the large hearing contraption over her skull, she found the young man sitting on the chair, as she had directed, and the duck standing in front of him, its beak nestled underneath a wing. The man was scratching the duck’s back, running his fingers like a currycomb up and down through the feathers. Mildred felt a momentary smart of jealousy; the duck had never let her touch it that continuously, that sensuously.
“Well, young man, I’m Mildred Heatherington. And what is your name?” she said, taking a seat in another of the half dozen wrought iron chairs scattered about her back yard.
“Francis Reed,” he replied, “but you can just call me Frank, if you prefer.”
“Oh well. And so, what do you want? Or did you just want to admire my duck as you were passing down the road?”
“It’s a nice duck, at that, but really I came by looking for a job.”
“I don’t have one for you. I suppose you thought this was a working ranch when you saw my house from the highway, heh? Well, it is, but I don’t work it. All this range around here is leased out. Has been since my husband died seven years ago. I just kept this house and that horse pen over there. Only reason I kept the horse pen is that I don’t want’em to put horses in it. Draw flies, you know, big flies.”
“No, no,” the young man said, chuckling. “I didn’t expect to be hired on as a ranch hand. I don’t know how to do that. I came here to be an artist.”
“A what?” asked Mildred, peering more closely at the young man as she adjusted her hearing aid. He had reddish-blond hair, rather full down to his collar. He kept having to pull some of it, on the left side, back away from in front of his eye. His eyes were as blue as the water she had seen on the Pacific coast in Mexico where the divers are. His nose was straight and even with rather small nostrils for a man, especially for a man his size, for he must have been six-one or six-two in his stockinged feet. His lips were of moderate thickness and curved in a perpetual near-smile, like the Mona Lisa. Mildred doubted he could frown even when angry or sad. Besides the plaid shirt and the faded denims, the only other observable garb he had were a brown leather garrison belt and some work boots with low tops. Then there was his knapsack, which, Mildred gauged, might contain a change of shirt and pants, some underwear and socks, and a can or two of soup, but not much more.
“An artist, your artist,” he was saying.
“Are you well, young man? Did you just get released from an institution? Are you simply wandering in the roadway, alone, no one, no relative anywhere to take care of you?”
Mildred wasn’t being sarcastic, though her words so baldly presented might seem to indicate that. She was genuinely concerned—curious and concerned—about his mental health and his physical safety. Maybe she was a little concerned about her safety, too, since many mental patients released in recent years were committing crimes all over Texas, though mostly in the big cities. She had read a lot about them.
“I am alone in the world,” the young man said, “but I’m not insane.”
“Oh well. And so, I’m certainly glad to hear that, though it’s perhaps not wise for me to take your word for it. Still, although what you say makes me wonder about your stability, the way you say it, and your other behavior seem quite normal to me.”
“Good. Then is it settled? May I be your artist?”
“Phew! There you go again! Look here, young man…”
“Okay. Look here, Frank. I don’t hire anybody to do anything, except for repairmen every once in a blue moon to fix my plumbing or the roof. I don’t have any money to spare on luxuries and I definitely don’t need any art works around here. I’m something of an artist myself, at least good enough to do my own decorating.”
“How about your pet?”
“Your pet artist. Look at what a menagerie you have! Remember, I was watching as you fed them a while ago. You have a wild goose, which looks like it must have been wounded some time or other. You have this duck I’m scratching. You have the stray dog you just couldn’t turn away. And you have something in the house…”
“…two cats in the house you were talking to. Why not a pet artist? You can not only talk to me. I can talk to you.”
“They’re animals. You’re a human being. They have to be taken care of, but you can take care of yourself. I like them because they can’t talk. Why should I appreciate you because you can?”
“Very well, I won’t talk then—after I’ve persuaded you that I, too, deserve to be your pet—your pet artist. I need no more than those still meaty bones and broken corn you throw to the animals, and you will be delighted with all the works of my hands.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a sculptor.”
“No, I mean what kind of subject matter? What kind of style?”
“Oh! To glorify God and to reveal Him to people. Anything I see that will contribute to those goals, that’s what I will do. I don’t really know how I will treat a subject until I do it. I hope that answers your question.”
“Oh well. And so, I guess that’s the best answer you can give under those criteria. Can’t say much more, I suppose.”
“There now. There won’t be any money involved. Just let me eat table scraps and sleep in that horse shed…that manger…over there for three months. That’s all I ask!”
“Well, for three months then. I guess I can stand it that long. Anyway, I’m intrigued with the idea, with what you might do. Three months, not a day longer, mind you. And no talking.”
In the distance, coyotes yelped in hungry unison, banding for the day’s hunt.
Frank put his right hand’s forefinger against his lips, signaling thereby that the agreed upon term of silence was beginning immediately. Mildred turned about and walked toward her front door, shaking her head and saying to herself, “How do I get into these messes? What did I do to deserve this? Why am I doing it? Why, O Lord?”
It was mid-September when Francis Reed first appeared at Mildred’s quiet old ranch house, which faced southwest toward the small town of Saints Roost and on to Big Bend. The road from her ranch house wound downhill through sagebrush and cacti to the state highway. After the five-minute bumpy drive down from her place to the paved road, it took yet thirty more minutes at the posted speed limit to reach town. Ordinarily Mildred drove into town each Saturday, but this time she waited until the first of October. She had plenty of provisions to see her through that extended period, and she had become fascinated by the activity of her new “pet”.
As soon as Mildred had gone into the house on that first day, Francis had taken a scythe from the tool shed in her carport and started mowing down the huge tumbleweeds that had grown up in her horse pen, which stood about fifty yards northeast of Mildred’s house. The rattlesnakes had gone into hibernation, so there wasn’t much to fear from them. It had taken Francis nearly all day to clear out the brush, haul it down to a broad, dry creek bed, and burn it. The work had been rough, too, because the tumbleweeds were dessicated just enough to harden their thorns, yet not enough to break up easily. All day, the dog trotted and loped around him as he worked.
When dusk came, Francis and the dog walked up to the yard fence. There on the carport slab they found the skillet and a blue china plate—a concession to Francis’ humanness. The contents, however, were not similarly distinguishable: each had a bit of some meat resembling chopped steak (rather undone) or corned beef hash (rather too done), and a sort of mush concocted apparently of mashed potatoes, corn and some kind of small brown beans. But Francis, and certainly the dog, did not view the menu before them thus critically; they were of a single mind in seeing the substances as capable of filling irritating pits in their stomachs.
Through the diaphanous screen around her porch, Mildred watched the two gobble up the luncheon leavings she and Adeline Burroughs, her 60-year-old neighbor of ten miles away, had abandoned after satiety. Adeline, short and plump, was Mildred’s most frequent visitor. Dropping in once every week or two, she would talk about goings-on in town and the latest buffoonery emanating out of the county courthouse—today she had reported how one of the commissioners had been caught switching price tags on a fishing reel at a sporting goods store in a neighboring county—and to see how healthy Mildred was. Adeline was indeed always curious about things. For that reason, Mildred had kept her in the fore part of the house during her whole visit, claiming that the back porch was too big a mess for anyone to be allowed to see. One day Adeline was bound to find out about Mildred’s pet artist, but better later than earlier, Mildred thought. No telling what crazy notions Adeline would hatch in town were she to glimpse the man in the plaid shirt out in the horse pen. Good thing Francis was over at the creek bed virtually the whole time of Adeline’s visit. Mildred needed time to come up with some explanation for his presence or to make certain he stayed well hid. For the time being, the latter appeared the more feasible tack. Lies, even white ones, have a way of multiplying beyond control.
The sun had already set, but the lingering twilight, aided by the gradual entree of heaven’s brightest stars, still rendered the whole back yard scene visible. Mildred watched as the man and the dog finished their meals. The man then opened the gate, set the plate and the old skillet just inside the yard, and walked out to the manger. The dog ran ahead of him a ways, came back, reared up against the man’s denim-covered thigh, and then took off running again, running toward the manger as though he knew that was the man’s destination.
Mildred reflected a bit, one forefinger against her lower lip. Fall was here. Although the days were still warm, the nights were chilly—sometimes, to some people, downright cold. Mildred knew there was some hay out in the manger; it would suffice as a bed of sorts. But what of cover? She couldn’t imagine anybody sleeping out there all night long without a blanket, unless their sleep was that of the frozen dead. She had some blankets of her own, of course, but their quality was too fragile, not one of them of a grade she wanted to abandon to the harshness of the elements. There was, however, on the wall above her sandstone fireplace a deer hide, the hide of a five-point whitetail buck her husband had shot—O lands! —years ago, when he and she were in their thirties, still in the blossomtime of their love. In its own way, then, the deer hide was precious—nay, more precious—to her than any of the blankets folded neatly in the linen closet; but it was definitely designed for outdoor use and not for hanging over a fireplace, getting all smudged by smoke.
Mildred went to her utility closet in the hallway and pulled out her aluminum four-step ladder. Returning to the fireplace, she looked up briefly at the deer hide, shook her head in disgusted wonderment, and climbed up to take the hide down. She rolled it up on the floor and then, carrying it over her shoulder, ambled down the hall, through the kitchen and the back porch, over the cobblestone walk to the gate, up the path to the horse pen, and to the manger. It was pure night by now, although early by the clock; the stars and the half moon in the expansive West Texas sky lit up all creation with a silvery blue light. By the celestial gleaming she could discern the young man asleep on scattered hay, exhausted from his day’s labor. His body was on the hay; but his head, wreathed in tousled locks, rested on the rib cage of the dog, which lay crosswise beneath him, its deep rhythmical breathing providing a kind of rocking cradle for the man. The dog heard Mildred’s approach and lifted its head momentarily to look at her, but then laid it back down again, yet keeping its eyes open. Mildred unrolled the deer hide and spread it out gently over the man. She stood there a moment, her hands folded in front of her, looking in puzzlement at the youth and then in satisfaction with what she had done with the hide. Then she walked back, through the cool, starry night, to her house.
The next day, shortly after sunrise, Mildred awoke and put on her hearing aid to listen to the “Farm and Ranch Report” on her radio. As she was listening, she suddenly heard the sound of something large moving noisily through the brush just beyond her back fence. She got up and lifted a slat of the venetian blind on her bedroom window. Outside, in the faint dawn light, she saw Francis Reed, or whoever he was, pulling the trunk of a cottonwood tree through the pasture to the horse pen he had cleared the previous day. She recognized the tree trunk as one that had fallen over across the creek after a flash flood sent a torrent of brown water down the creek bed a year ago and more. Similar torrents in previous years had so denuded and weakened the tree’s root structure that it finally could no longer withstand the water’s insistent hammering, and it fell. Now here was the young stranger dragging it, minus most of its limbs, across a pasture and into Mildred’s horse pen. “Has he cleared it out only to clutter it up?” she said to herself, letting go of the blind’s slat.
On the porch later that morning Mildred sat watching her pet artist carving away at the cottonwood trunk with a chisel and hammer, possibly items he had carried in his knapsack, since Mildred didn’t recognize them as hers. Sitting in her wing chair, cheek supported by palm, her elbow supported by the chair’s arm, she gazed entrancedly the greater part of the morning out through the screen wall at the man, now shirtless, lifting the hammer over his ear and bringing it down against the chisel’s head. After each stroke with his right hand, he would bend his left wrist, twisting the wood chip loose from its last tenuous grasp on the trunk. Swing, twist; swing, twist. The rhythm of his actions was reflected in his bare back, where his musculature continually contracted and expanded in a flowing ripple. Every minute or so, he would pause and lean back a little to gauge the broader progress of his work, then he would return to the swing and twist motions. And the dog was there, no more than ten feet away, lying in the shade of the manger, his nose between his paws, his eyes watching the sculptor at his work.
When the sun had reached the edge of Mildred’s roof, so that she was sitting almost entirely in chilly shadow, she arose and went into the kitchen to prepare some lunch. “Shoo! Get down from there!” she said to the lean cat, who was on the sink counter biting into the cellophane packaging of a bread loaf. The cat hopped onto a chair and thence to the floor.
“What’ll I do?” Mildred asked herself agitatedly. “I don’t want to make more than enough…just because he’s out there. I wish I had known it would lead to all this bother. I wouldn’t have consented to it. I just wouldn’t! I know what: I’ll make less than enough, even for me. There won’t be anything for the dog—poor dog—but he’s not supposed to be here anyway. Needs to get back where he belongs.”
She made some chili macaroni, a small potfull, as little as the recipe would allow. She also chopped up a quarter head of lettuce and a tomato and some green onions for salad. Then she sat down to eat, to gorge herself if need be; she wasn’t about to go hungry herself for the sake of a couple of wayfarers. Let them go catch a jackrabbit as the honest coyotes did. And she ate and she ate until her stomach felt bloated and her jaw ached. But there was still nearly half a pan of chili mac left and not a small amount of salad. Mildred shook her head almost despairingly. Then she scraped the leftovers, in equal portions, into the old skillet and the blue plate. “Impossible!” she said. “Impossible!”
Frank was a slow, meticulous artist, but by the third week the piece began to take shape, to reveal some kind of recognizable coherency to Mildred as she stood near the corner of her fence in the back yard sprinkling corn about for the duck and the goose. The composition’s subject seemed to be a man sitting, apparently on the ground. Mildred, pausing in her pet-tending chore and shading her face from the bright morning sun, surmised that the figure must be some biblical character, for he was wearing one of those headpieces that always reminded her of a towel bound to the head with the bottom ring of a wickerwork basket. A rather clever touch, Mildred thought, was the way Francis had used the bases of real branches to carve out a kind of plant that grew behind and bent over the sitting man. The figure was hugging his knees and staring off into space with an expression of angry indignation. The only biblical character Mildred could think of who was consistent with such a scene was Jonah—Jonah, with God’s special plant shading him, waiting to see whether Nineveh would ever be destroyed as he had prophesied.
In her bedroom that night, Milded took her small Bible from its dusty place on a headboard shelf and reread the brief story of Jonah, of how the prophet had sat for days painfully annoyed because he couldn’t limit God’s mercy any more effectually than he had limited the horizon of God’s presence. Most of the artworks she had seen that depicted the troubles of Jonah had shown the incident of his being swallowed by a big fish. She couldn’t recall any previous work that emphasized the prophet’s sullen anger and the role of the heavenly-ordained plant. What was her pet artist trying to say? She couldn’t ask him: she had obligated him to silence, and her pride wouldn’t let her override that obligation, even if curiosity was driving her crazy. She had never been as knocked about by the desire to know, the reluctance to enquire. Why did he have to pop into her life? Why didn’t he just vamoose out of it? An eighty-year-old woman shouldn’t have to put up with such nonsense, should have only peace and quiet around her, not an insane artist creating an angry statue in her horse pen.
By the first of November, Francis was through with the Jonah piece. At least, he quit doing anything to it that Mildred ever saw. Another sign that the work was finished was that the artist had collected all the wood chips and shavings on the ground around it, put them in some old apple crates retrieved from the storage shed, and set the crates near Mildred’s stack of firewood: kindling.
Then he started collecting tin cans and any other refuse of light weight metal he might find. Developing a sizeable stash of such items did not take many days because the creek bed in some places was littered with cans discarded by cowboys. If he had not been so highly selective in the cans he picked—of a relatively uniform size and their silver gleam still free of rust—and had he not so carefully removed all the paper labels glued around their circumferences, Mildred might have launched into a tirade over what certainly would have appeared to her as a trash heap in her back yard. Well, in fact it was a trash heap, only a rather pretty and neat one, like a silvery cone.
One chilly night in early November, when the moon was full and high in the navy-blue heaven, Mildred walked out into the back yard to clear her head of a headache created by the hot stuffy house and to call in the cats. She saw the moonlight gleaming on Francis’ pile of tin, silver on silver compounding in brightness, without any other distracting otherness visible. The tin pile was near the stable, and Mildred ventured toward it, clutching the collar of her blue house coat close for warmth, to see if a nearer inspection might divest the pile of its mystery, of its hold on her. She looked at it a few minutes before her peripheral vision detected a movement in the manger. Turning her direct gaze that way, she was surprised to see her two Siamese cats lying near Francis on the straw. As usual the young man’s head was cradled on the dog’s rib cage. Behind him in the deepest recess of the manger stood the duck and the wild goose, their heads tucked under their wings. Francis lay still in the center of them. Mildred’s deer hide covered him from neck to calf. He had his boots on.
Mildred shivered and ambled back toward her house.
As the days grew more wintry, Francis took to wearing the deer hide as a sort of cape while he worked. He looked somewhat like a caveman from certain angles. His hair had gotten longer, of course, hanging down below his shoulder. With his locks falling over the brownish-grey fur of the buck’s hide, the total effect was to render him rather wild-looking.
He had pulled an old engine block out of the tool shed and was using it as an anvil on which to beat the bits of tin into malleable condition. Working up louvers here and clamps there, he fashioned the tin pieces together, like scales over scales or, more aptly, feathers over feathers. For, as it turned out, what he was creating was a bird.
But what kind of bird? Again, Mildred was hindered by her pride from obtaining a direct answer. She watched from inside her screened-in porch as the wild artist cut and pounded and chipped and twisted away at the bits of transformed tin. In a week’s time, Mildred could discern something of the design of the composition, something more than the fact that it was simply a bird. By the angle of the bird’s head—off to its right and bent slightly upward as though it were serenading God—the figure gave a primary clue as to its identity; although further clues were not lacking, in the extent of its tail feathers relative to body length and in the peculiar shape of its head and spoon-like beak. Partly through familiarity with those features but also through intuition Mildred guessed that it was a mockingbird.
All Mildred knew about the mockingbird species at that point was that it was the state bird, that it had a strong sense of “territorial imperative”, and that it could mimic other birds. Again retiring with a book, in bed she read up on mockingbirds, just as she had studied Jonah’s saga in the Bible. This time it was an old birdwatcher’s book her husband had enjoyed reading. Therein she discovered that the mockingbird also performs some acrobatic ritual dances no one has been able to interpret. But what intrigued her most was that the mockingbird, with more than thirty songs in its repertory, has no song of its own.
She lay in much of the next morning. For some reason she couldn’t put her finger on, she felt unwilling to face the reality of the day. Why? she wondered, as she lay studying the swirled patterns in her antique ceiling. She didn’t feel ill and she had retired the previous night unaware of any external cause for anxiety. She had even felt then a sense of accom-plishment because of her new knowledge, however minute and inconsequential, about the mockingbird. Yet there was something that bothered her about what she had learned. Was that it, that the mockingbird, although the most glorious of songbirds, was denied a private melody? The young man had told her his goals were to glorify God and to reveal Him to people. How did the mockingbird reveal God to people? Was Francis saying God has no direct voice of His own, that He can speak to us only through other humans, other creatures? Otherness manifesting. And she had bound the young man to silence for three months; she had tried to gag God. And the three months were up. Her pet artist would be leaving, probably today. Now anxiety did indeed invest her. She must get up and go out to the horse pen to release the young man from his bond, to ask the pet artist to tell her all he can about God.
The next afternoon, as the sun was beginning to squat down over the buttes above Saints Roost, Joe Vandenburg was just turning his grey pickup from Aspen Street onto Main on his way to the “Country Kitchen” when he saw an old blue station wagon careening down the state highway out of the mountains.
“That looks like Adeline Burroughs’ car,” the heavy, bearded rancher said to his foreman, Alberto Juarez, a short, wiry man seated next to him.
Joe delayed his turn. “But Adeline don’t usually drive that fast,” Alberto said as she whizzed by in front of them.
The truck followed the car as it proceeded five blocks west on Main and pulled in at the “Country Kitchen”.
“Guess we’ll find out what’s up now,” said Joe. “That woman’s a talker if ever there was one.”
Upon entering the warm, half-crowded cafe, the two men saw Adeline standing in the middle of a group of five or six cowboys and oil field roughnecks. She was gesticulating and talking fast, almost hysterically. The men standing about appeared uncertain whether to wrestle her to the floor and forcibly calm her down or to let her go on raving.
“Help me! Help me! For God’s sake, come with me out to Mildred’s! She’s gone crazy, I tell you, and I can’t spend all evening here explaining it to you!”
“We’ll go with you,” Joe said calmly, and spat some of his chaw into a paper cup he carried with him everywhere. “These fellas can stay and finish their suppers.”
Adeline turned, looked at Joe and Alberto hopefully, and ran out the door. The two men again found themselves following the blue-black exhaust fumes of Adeline’s station wagon, this time back up the highway and the winding road to Mildred’s ranch house. By the time they arrived the sun had set on the mountains behind them, but they couldn’t see it, hid as it was by a curtain of red and purple and mauve clouds. Some golden rays beamed through a gap in the clouds and illuminated a distant valley.
Mildred’s front door was wide open, left that way by Adeline when she went for help. Joe and Alberto caught up with Adeline at the doorway. She was standing there staring quietly into the living room. Over her shoulders they saw Mildred coming from the hallway toward them. She had an unconscious, beatific smile on her face, rather like the Mona Lisa, and she was murmuring to them as she stamped across the room, “I’m a mouse. Can you hear me? I’m a very loud mouse walking across this floor. Can you hear me?”
Alberto took a coverlet off the couch and wrapped it around Mildred’s shoulders. “Why don’t you just lie down over here a few minutes, Mildred?” he said, hugging her and gently nudging her toward the couch. After he had persuaded her to lie down, he said to Adeline, “I think she’ll come out of it. She’s had some kind of shock. Do you know what caused it?”
“Not really. Something out in the horse pen, I think. Go look out in the horse pen.”
Leaving Alberto to watch after the two women, Joe went through the house and the screened-in porch. Twilight had firmly settled in by now, but Joe could see well enough as he strode over the cobblestone walk and out to the horse pen. There, facing him at the open gate, stood something that looked like part of a tree trunk, about four feet high, that had been sculpted into the form of a man sitting under a large-leafed plant of some sort. At the base of the plant, a worm almost as large as a snake appeared to be gnawing. Inside the pen, Joe noticed a foot-tall tin bird—its beak pointing at the pinkish sky—perched on an old engine block. “Humph!” Joe muttered to himself. “Ol’ Mildred must’ve been cleanin’ out her attic and settin’ up for a yard sale.” Then a crunching noise and a sudden movement in the darkened horse stall startled him, and he looked up quickly to see a five-point whitetail buck, its head bent down, calmly chewing some hay.